The Dallas Mavericks haven't been quite as fortunate as their No. 8 seed cousins from the Eastern Conference, the Atlanta Hawks, who have exploited an unprecedented meltdown from the Indiana Pacers to seize a 3-2 series lead. Dallas' first-round opponent, the No. 1 seed San Antonio Spurs, is not the kind of team that beats itself; it makes you earn it.
Well, the No. 8 seed Mavericks have earned everything they've been given in a wild first-round series that has featured buzzer-beaters, ejections and innumerable lead changes. The Spurs may have taken a commanding 3-2 lead in the series on the strength of Wednesday's 109-103 win, but the Mavs are far from finished.
Not only will the Mavericks be returning home, but they will also be getting reinforcements. Power forward DeJuan Blair was suspended, and center Samuel Dalembert was hobbled by an ankle injury suffered in the first quarter. Blair will certainly be back for Game 6, and Dalembert will hopefully be closer to 100 percent.
But by far the biggest reason the Mavs shouldn't be counted out is this: The real Dirk Nowitzki finally showed up on Wednesday night.
Mavericks fans have seen a lanky, floppy-haired blond with a feathery jumper playing forward for Dallas during the first four games of this series. But that gentleman was only averaging 16.0 points on 38.5 percent shooting (20.0 percent from beyond the arc) through his first four games. He was, as the German's say, a doppelganger.
The actual, factual Dirk made his presence known in San Antonio Wednesday night, however, scoring a series-high 26 points—including 14 points in the fourth quarter—and grabbing 15 rebounds.
Prior to Wednesday, we had been seeing some very un-Dirk-like numbers—nearly 10 points below his career postseason average and a full 3.7 points per game lower than his playoff nadir, the 2007 first round.
Nowitzki put up 19.7 points per game during the most humiliating playoff series of his life. One season after making the playoffs (and a few days before being named MVP of the 2006-07 regular season), Nowitzki and the No. 1 seed Mavericks were beaten in six games by the No. 8 seed Golden State Warriors.
Now, seven years later, the tables have turned. It is the Mavericks trying to pull off the historic first-round upset. And Nowitzki is no longer plagued by accusations from hack writers that he doesn't have what it takes to win the big one—he silenced those critics three years ago, when he was named MVP of the 2011 Finals.
Still, the Mavericks are unlikely to prolong this series unless they get another vintage performance from Nowitzki.
The World Turned Upside Down
Nothing makes sense about the Dallas Mavericks so far in this postseason—up is down, black is white, dogs and cats are living together in the American Airlines Center.
The regular-season Mavericks relied on a very specific formula to win games. They had a spectacular scoring attack (third in the NBA in offensive efficiency) but couldn't stop anybody (22nd in the NBA in defensive efficiency). They won on most nights simply by outscoring the opposition. More importantly, they won by relying on Dirk.
While the Mavericks were not a one-man team, they did lean heavily on the brilliance of Nowitzki, who had a season for the ages. At the advanced age of 35, Nowitzki came within an eyelash of once again joining the exclusive 50-40-90 club, shooting 49.7 percent from the field, 39.8 percent from beyond the arc and 89.9 percent from the free-throw line.
Per Basketball-Reference.com, Nowitzki finished the season with 10.9 win shares, nearly twice as many as the next-highest Maverick (Jose Calderon).
But the Mavericks have turned their regular-season formula on its head against the Spurs. They have been shockingly aggressive on defense, forcing the Spurs into far more mistakes than they usually make. San Antonio coughed the ball up 22 times in Game 2, by far its highest mark of the season.
Through it all, it has been the unusual suspects making most of the key plays for Dallas. Veteran Devin Harris has been playing his best basketball in at least five years. Former Spur DeJuan Blair was destroying his old mates before he was ejected for kicking Tiago Splitter.
This has led to perhaps the most shocking statistic of any playoff series: Of the 10 Mavericks to play at least 10 minutes in this series, Nowitzki ranks ninth in player efficiency rating (PER) heading into Wednesday:
|MP||PER (15.0 is average)|
The Dirk Effect
Perhaps no team on Earth knows how to defend Nowitzki better than the San Antonio Spurs. Certainly no team has more experience guarding him in the playoffs—this is the sixth postseason series between the Spurs and Mavericks in the Nowitzki era.
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle acknowledged the challenge inherent in matching up his superstar against such a familiar, intelligent opponent, per The Dallas Morning News' Kevin Sherrington:
They're one of the best teams at making it hard on a particular guy. They've been dealing with him long before I got here, so they have a lot of different things. They're a very intelligent team, a very sophisticated team.
And so the Spurs have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at Nowitzki—Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, Tim Duncan, even a dash of Matt Bonner. The approach certainly seemed to be working, until Dirk started raining jumpers over Splitter in Game 5.
But there is always a catch with this strategy—that added attention has drawn the defense away from the other Mavericks. The bigs have run out on Nowitzki, which has allowed the likes of Carter, Ellis and Harris open driving lanes to the rim. The weak-side three-pointer has been open when the Spurs have loaded up on Dirk, and Dallas shooters have been taking advantage.
Per SB Nation's Andrew Tobolowsky, the way the Mavericks have seemingly won in spite of Nowitzki should actually be seen as encouraging:
The difference between the way the Mavs are winning now and the way they won during the season is the fact that the way they are winning now is hopeful and sustainable. Dirk, as they years go on, will be able to do it all himself less and less. But when can defenses stop being scared of him? It's hard to imagine that ever happening, really. The trick for the Mavs is finding enough help around him to take advantage of that, and boy have they in this series.
Year of the Stretch 4
In three of the four playoff series that have seen the lower seed take the lead—Washington-Chicago, Atlanta-Indiana, Houston-Portland—we have seen a common thread: Each underdog team had a big who could hit outside shots.
Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge has been the leading scorer of the postseason so far by balancing his molten-hot mid-range game with consistent drives to the cup. When he's hitting consistently from 17-20 feet, the Rockets have no way of guarding him.
And the Hawks have further contributed to the decline of All-Star center Roy Hibbert by using their big men—Paul Millsap, in particular—to stretch the Pacers defense by shooting from the perimeter.
The good news for the Dallas Mavericks is that they have the quintessential stretch 4 in Dirk Nowitzki. Unlike Nene and Aldridge, Dirk has true three-point range. He just hasn't shown it yet.
Nowitzki has already done the Mavericks a favor by drawing Spurs defenders out of the paint. But he has to start hitting more shots. The rest of the team are playing well, but there is also the danger that they're playing over their heads. They need more support from their star. They need Dirk.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.